- Related Link
- "How the Greenhouse Effect Works"
A short animated feature from BBC News showing why the earth is heating up due to soaring carbon emissions.
"The World Is a Bit of a Time Bomb"
The following excerpt is from an interview with George Monbiot, journalist and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning.
How big is the problem of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere?
Eighty percent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels. The current burning of fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas -- releases 7 billion tons of carbon per year in the form of carbon dioxide, plus lots of other greenhouse gases. It's at least 10 times too much if we're going to prevent runaway climate change from taking place, because CO2 helps air absorb heat from the sun. The more CO2, the greater the warming of the earth.
What's runaway climate change?
It's defined by most scientists as a point beyond about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of the planet heating up, or 2 degrees [Celsius]. That's roughly the point at which the world's biological and physical systems take over as primary sources of greenhouse gases and kick off a chain reaction which then continues on its own. So the world has to prevent that point from being reached.
What does that chain reaction look like?
What happens is that many of the world's critical systems -- such as the ocean, the forests, the soil -- begin releasing large amounts of greenhouse gas as the planet warms. Take the oceans: The colder a body of water is, the more gas can be dissolved in it. As it warms up, it loses gas. For example, with a bottle of soda, warm it up and the gas bubbles out -- exactly the same happens with the oceans. The warmer oceans get, the more carbon dioxide they release; the more carbon dioxide they release, the warmer they get; and it goes on and on like that in a vicious cycle.
The forests and tropical forests, when heated up a little bit, start to die back. Trees are basically sticks of wet carbon. As they die, that carbon is oxidized. It turns to carbon dioxide that causes more temperature rise that kills more trees.
The soils are full of bacteria, little bugs which eat all the detritus in the soil. As they warm up, the metabolic rate of the bacteria increases, and they breathe out more; they produce more carbon dioxide. It is a load of effects like this which are called runaway or positive feedback effects -- a process creating more of itself and just accelerating, and goes on accelerating.
So that's why, beyond a certain point, which scientists put at roughly 3 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of total warming, it gets snatched out of mankind's hands, and it turns into a runaway process which man won't be able to stop.
What about the permafrost?
All around the Arctic is frozen soils, the tundra, which is locked up by frost. That's permafrost. They remain frozen all through the year -- or they did. These frozen soils contain a great deal of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas, 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. They contain so much that in the West Siberian peat bog alone, there's the equivalent of 73 years of human greenhouse gas emissions locked up in that one part of the tundra.
As the permafrost melts, methane is released. As methane is released, the chain reaction then proceeds. And there's a massive danger there, as well as in those other systems which can release greenhouse gases.
The world thus is a bit of a time bomb: It contains a whole load of incipient greenhouse gases waiting to be released by a little bit of global warming.
Where are the big CO2 emissions coming from?
Number one is the huge power stations generating electricity to keep lights on, industry operating. They're burning coal, natural gas and oil. They account for roughly one-third of carbon dioxide production in the industrialized nations.
Number two in CO2 emisssions is transport -- generally 20 to 25 percent in most nations. It includes cars, buses, planes, trains, trucks.
Behind transport and power generation come home heating, agriculture, industries like the cement industry, which is a very polluting industry because it has to heat up limestone to 1,450 degrees Celsius to turn it into cement, and the chemical process itself produces carbon dioxide. Cement is 5 to 10 percent of global CO2 emissions.
Why is the world worried about China's development?
China will put the same amount of carbon into the air in just the first 30 years of this century as the U.S. put into the atmosphere during the whole of the last century, and the total amount of carbon put in by both the U.S. and China in this century will be six to eight times what the U.S. put in in the last century. It's that carbon from the last century that the U.S. and the Europeans put in the air that's causing climate change now. The world, however, is increasing its carbon dioxide dramatically now.
We're being very Pollyanna[ish] about what we think we can do. We're increasing carbon at twice the speed that [the] Kyoto [Protocol] contemplated. Kyoto envisioned that we would cut it back, we would reduce it. So we're failing from that point of view.
Even if China and the United States are successful in cutting their emissions back severely, I don't believe myself that that's adequate. That's not enough.
Let's talk about population.
There's a set of very interesting equations being published in the United Kingdom which show that a doubling in the growth rate equates to a doubling in the total amount of resources we have ever used. What this means is that between now and 2031 -- in 23 years -- we will consume the same amount of economic resources as human beings consumed in 3 million years. It might be minerals; it might be timber; it might be fish; it might be freshwater, coal, oil, wood, etc.
So by the end of the century we end up using 16 times the resources which we have used up until now. That is not sustainable -- not just from the point of view of climate change; it's not sustainable from any point of view. It's not going to work, and our biggest challenge is to do something about rates of economic growth.
What did the recent UN report say?
There's a huge new report that has been published by the United Nations called the GEO-4 [Global Environmental Outlook] report, looking at the state of the world's environments. It's about 500 pages. And one of the things in that is that in order to meet this very basic aim of halving the level of world hunger -- which all the G8 nations signed [on to] in 2005 -- in order to meet that aim, we need a doubling of world water use to grow food. Now, what the climate change models are suggesting is actually we are going to see less water available.
And if at the same time we've got these enormously accelerating rates of economic growth and resource use, where we're going to be using water for all sorts of other reasons as well -- for all the industrial processes which are required to keep up with that rate of growth; for all the domestic processes, the new swimming pools we're going to have, the new Jacuzzis -- where is that water going to come from?
This is water we desperately need to feed the world, and yet it's going to be diverted into the other uses if the rate of economic growth proceeds along the same track as it's going.
This is a much, much bigger issue than population. And it seems to me that people are pointing to population because you can blame someone else for it. You can say: "Oh, look at those people in the poor parts of the world. They're breeding like rabbits. It's terrible. Something should be done about it." Instead of saying: "Oh, look at the way we're living. Look at the enormous expansion in our demand for goods and services," which is the real problem.